Disparities in mental health care for minority groups

I've talked with multiple counselors throughout my life. And, to be honest, unpacking my problems and my secrets to a stranger has been one of the most personal and nerve wracking and also liberating things I've ever done.

Because it's such an intimate exchange, I've always felt more comfortable talking with female therapists. There are some shared experiences that women can relate to in a way that men just can't.

The same goes for race and ethnicity. There are things that black women and men have had to endure that white people will just never understand.

René Brooks, who has ADHD and anxiety, wrote on Heathline that having a black female therapist made all the difference when it came to her mental health treatment.

"Being black affects every single experience I have on this earth and will do so until the day I die. In order to effectively treat me, you have to understand what life is like for a black woman," Brooks wrote. "With a black therapist, I don’t have to hide or downplay any part of my identity within those walls. When I can be free like that, some of the healing comes naturally as a result of feeling safe in my own skin."

But, unfortunately, for minorities, it can be challenging to find a counselor of the same race and ethnicity who can better relate to their feelings and experiences. According to the American Psychological Association, about 86% of psychologists are white, 5% are Asian, 5% are Hispanic and 4% are African-American.

This is just one of the many disparities for racial and ethnic minorities when it comes to seeking mental health care. Compared to non-minorities, they are less likely to have access to mental health services and are more likely to receive poor quality care when treated, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.

July is Minority Mental Health Month, and, last week, my work hosted a virtual discussion to raise awareness. The panel included two African-American women who are rockstars in the local mental health community —Dr. Barika Butler, medical director of the Behavioral Center of Michigan and Samaritan Behavioral Center, and Malkia Newman, team supervisor of the CNS Healthcare Anti-Stigma Program.

“In minority communities, we tend to not get treatment when we are having symptoms of mental illness. We tend to suffer in silence,” said Dr. Butler.

“In many situations, mental health coverage is different than other health care coverage, and it can become very expensive to get appropriate mental health care. On top of that, finding someone who has a level of relatability and shared experience with you can be very difficult. It's multifaceted, and it makes it so much more difficult for us to get better.”

Dr. Butler and Newman offered some tips and tools for people struggling with their mental health:

  • Be honest with yourself and recognize when something doesn’t feel right. It’s okay not to be okay.
  • Engage your support system and connect with allies. 
  • Limit your capacity. Say “No” when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
  • Physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches and upset stomach may be symptoms of mental health issues. 
  • If you show any symptoms, reach out to your primary care doctor for next steps.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask if there’s a provider on staff who is a certain gender or a person of color who could better relate to your experiences. 
  • The first counselor or therapist you connect with might not be the right one. Continue to look for someone who is the right fit for you.

Newman said, “As people of color, we experience stereotypes about who we are based on our culture and race – and then you layer mental illness on top of that. The stigma is that you need to be strong, pull yourself up by your bootstraps or run around the block and you’ll feel better. It’s detrimental to hold on to these stereotypes instead of finding out the true facts when it comes to mental health."

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